In the midst of all these voices and legal procedure a child’s voice is often not heard. This is the reason for the being of CASA: to give children a voice.
What is CASA?
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate and is a non-profit organization that “recruits, screens, trains, and supports community volunteers to advocate for the best interest of abused and neglected children involved in court-proceedings,” according to its website, www.nationalcasa.org. [Casa is also Spanish for “house.”]
The history of CASA dates back to 1977 when a Seattle judge called upon community volunteers to assist the court by researching and representing the best interests of child abuse victims after a small boy died when he was sent back to his abusive home.
Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a CASA tour at the Franklin County Municipal Court where CASA of Franklin County is headquartered. The tour is an eye-opener, especially if you get to witness a case in which the child has been appointed a CASA advocate.
Marilyn Berlekamp is the Executive Director of CASA Columbus and has been for the last year. She was one of the funding members of the Seneca County CASA program in 1991. She has also been involved in the Head Start Program since 1982. Head Start is a comprehensive child development program that serves children from birth to age 5, pregnant women, and their families. She became the executive director of the Columbus program when she moved here because of her husband’s job.
Attorneys in Columbus strongly opposed creating a CASA program when it was first proposed in 1992 because they thought it would negatively impact their practices. They thought the program would take over the cases involving minors that would otherwise go to them. Unfortunately, Mrs. Berlekamp said, there are enough children in the system that that hasn’t happened yet.
Mrs. Berlekamp said she would like to increase awareness of CASA’s mission and the role of volunteers in the program.
The role of volunteers
The volunteer basically functions as a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is a special guardian appointed by the court, usually a lawyer but not always, to act on behalf of a minor. The guardian ad litem is considered an officer of the court and represents the interests of the minor in court and legal matters.
The CASA program asks that volunteers commit to at least 2 years of service. This is to ensure that there is at least one constant in the child’s life during the legal process since the attorneys, the social workers, and the foster parents may change one or more times.
To ensure volunteers are qualified and really want to volunteer they go through a rigorous screening process and must complete 40 hours of training before being assigned a case.
Berlekamp said this is not an easy volunteer job; initially volunteers may find themselves spending all their time getting to know the details of the case but every minute of it is worth it “because we are ensuring that every child will have a safe home.”
Aside from the personal satisfaction volunteers get from helping children sometimes their employers also reward them. Nationwide Insurance, for example, gives its employees up to two vacation days per year depending on how many hours per year they volunteer. Other employers may have different incentives and volunteers should find out their employer’s stance on volunteering before committing to CASA.
Different types of CASA programs
Some CASA programs are exclusively court-based, meaning that the court assigns the cases. Others are self-selecting, meaning that they choose their own cases, and some are a mix of both. For example, the Toledo CASA program is court-based and the Columbus program is self-selecting.
Comparing the CASA program in Franklin County with those of other counties Berlekamp said this one has a lot of flexibility built into it because the court allows them to choose the cases.
The criteria they use when choosing which cases to take include: those of children who are 0-3 years old, those with multiple problems, those who have experienced neglect and abuse or are at risk for neglect, and those who are victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.
One unique feature of the Franklin County program is that lawyers are also supervisors. In other programs they may have anywhere from 2 to 5 or more lawyers on staff. These lawyers advise the supervisors who oversee the volunteers. Being both a lawyer and a supervisor blends these two positions in one and streamlines communication with the volunteers. The judges are very pleased with this arrangement because they are confident that legal requirements are being met.
When it comes to volunteers and supervisors, CASA strives to maintain a 30:1 ratio: one supervisor for every 30 volunteers. National standards dictate that volunteers have no more than 2 cases at a time. This is to ensure that volunteers follow through with their cases.
According to statistics provided by CASA of Franklin County, they currently have 180 volunteers, 130 active cases, and they served 576 children last year. By the end of this fiscal year they expect to have served 621-650 kids. CASA also projects an increase of about 8% compared to the current year.
More volunteers needed, especially bilingual ones
CASA (in Columbus, Toledo, and nationwide) is seeking more volunteers. There is an increasing need for Latino volunteers to help the growing number of Latino children who fall into the system. There’s also a need for information specialists who are willing to learn the details of the program and can educate and/or train other Latinos in the community about CASA and its mission.
Toledo celebrates 25
In Toledo, CASA has celebrated its 25th year. And according to Juvenile Court Judge James Ray (Court of Common Pleas of Lucas County, Juvenile Division), CASA in Lucas County is also in need of Spanish-speaking volunteers; Ray has been a judge in Lucas County for 18 years and co-judged with the beloved Joseph A. Flores.
Latinos are the largest minority in the United States. As their numbers grow, the number of children who will enter the court system will undoubtedly grow as well. This is where trained volunteers can really make a difference—they can volunteer to advocate for these children who don’t have a voice or who may have a voice with a different language.
While CASA serves an increasing number of children each year, hundreds still need someone to speak up for them in court. To find out how you can help, visit http://www.casacolumbus.org/ContactUs.htm. Also, www.ohiocasa.org. For the thirteen CASA programs in Michigan go to: http://www.eatoncounty.org/CASA/micasa.html.